Oscar-Winner Diablo Cody Dishes on New Project: The United States of Tara
Juno's Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody has created a new dramedy for Showtime about a married, suburban artist with two kids — and she happens to suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), commonly referred to as multiple personalities. Diablo sat down with TVGuide.com to talk about transitioning from film to television writing, working with Steven Spielberg and a dream cast, and what it's like to write so many different personalities for Tara. The United States of Tara premieres Sunday at 10 pm/ET.
TVGuide.com: Let's talk about DID. Did you get to talk to people who actually suffer from the disorder?
Diablo Cody: Yes I did. We actually have one consultant working on the show who is a mother who lived with DID and raising her kids. She's no longer living with DID, but she had it, and she gave us a lot of insight into the disorder.
TVGuide.com: The main cause of DID is thought to be a result of traumatic incident during childhood. Are we ever going to find out what Tara's incident is?
Cody: Later in the season, we deal with the source of Tara's disorder extensively. We do talk about the trauma that caused it, but at this point, the family is not exactly sure what the incident was that triggered it.
TVGuide.com: Was there any inspiration behind the character of Tara's sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt), or did you just decide Tara needed an evil nemesis sister?
Cody: I wouldn't necessarily call Charmaine a nemesis; she's an antagonist. Actually, I wanted someone to be a voice for the skeptics. There are a lot of people who believe that DID isn't real. And, there are a lot of people who would look at Tara's behavior and say, "Oh, that's just silly; that's just selfish." I wanted Charmaine to be representative of that opinion. I also liked the idea of Charmaine being kinda insecure and attention-starved — like Tara's issues were kind of stealing the spotlight from her, which is a pretty twisted way of thinking. I have to admit I did originally envision them as being enemies and then as I continued to write episodes I found myself having a lot of affection for Charmaine. I think there's a lot more to her.
TVGuide.com: Was it difficult for you to transition from film to television writing?
Cody: It was very difficult for me. First of all, it's a half hour, and thank god we're on Showtime so we get the full 30 minutes. When you write for network you get 22 — I don't even understand how that's done. It's hard to tell a story in such a short amount of time. Originally, all my episodes were clocking out at 45 minutes and that was the shortest I could get them. But now, I've gotten the hang of it. It's [also] hard to write episodically. I'm a person who is naturally inclined to try to satisfy with my endings, and you can't do that with TV. You want people to feel a little unsatisfied so they come back for more. So I really had to think of the whole season as a puzzle, and just think, "all right, this week is another piece."
TVGuide.com: How involved is (executive producer) Steven Spielberg with the project?
Cody: It was his idea to do a story about a mom with multiple personalities. And, he knew he wanted it to be a TV show. So, he fathered this idea. Then, he hired me to write it, based on a pitch I that I brought to him. Then we took it around and pitched it to networks. And Showtime, you could tell immediately was enthusiastic — they got it right away. That was a great feeling. There wasn't a doubt in any of our minds that [Showtime] was the home for the show. ... [Spielberg's] completely involved; he watches dailies, he reads scripts.
TVGuide.com: Wait, let's go back, how freaked out were you by the phone call that you were going to work with Steven Spielberg and that he'd "father" the show?
Cody: I was completely freaked out. I didn't understand why he was interested in working with me because at the time, I didn't have a single produced film under my belt. All I had was the script for Juno. I was so nervous about him putting his faith in me. I thought, "Oh, I can't screw this up." The fact that we got the show to this stage, and its airing — I'm so relieved and so pleased because I felt like I did my job, and that's all I wanted to do.
TVGuide.com: Tell me about the casting process; these characters are very complicated and you want [someone like] Toni Collette to play Tara... but did you think, "How the heck can we get Toni Collette to play Tara?"
Cody: It was difficult because I couldn't think of a single person I wanted to play Tara. It was really challenging because I felt like with the wrong actor, it would be the wrong kind of comedy. I didn't want it to be over-the-top; I didn't want it to feel like a sketch show. I wanted it to feel authentic and real, and there aren't a lot of people that can do that. When I heard that Toni Collette was going to do it — which happened all of the sudden — she literally read it, called that day and said, "I'm doing the show." There wasn't even a discussion... I was just really able to exhale. I thought, "I cannot think of anyone else for this role now." Now I feel like I created it for her. And then John Corbett (Max), I love him so much. I was on a location scout for Jennifer's Body [her upcoming movie] when he called me and he said, "Look, I really want to do this part." And I thought, "Ahhhh! Aidan [from Sex and the City]! It was very exciting.
TVguide.com: I love the way you handle the sexuality of Tara's son Marshall. The story is not about the fact that he's gay; you've written it like, (trying not to spoil the story) he's discovering who he is, and is doing exactly what any kid would do who has a crush on someone... even following them to the brink of "hell..."
Cody: What you're referring to is sort of an extreme way for me to depict the lengths we will go to — we're willing to violate all of our principles to be near somebody that we have a crush on. I wanted to make sure that Marshall's sexuality was just matter-of-fact. Creating it was matter-of-fact for me. When I was inventing the characters I thought, "Alright, Marshall, he's 14 and he's gay. It definitely wasn't intended as any sort of plot point.
TVGuide.com: Everyone in his family knows that he's gay and they don't care.
Cody: Except for (Tara's alternate personality) Buck. But, Buck actually does love Marshall, but I thought it would be really fun to have Tara, herself, be incredibly supportive and then for her to have this "alter" who's kind of a homophobe.
TVGuide.com: Is it freeing as a writer to have so many alters to write for — and to say what you really want to say?
Cody: It's incredibly freeing. The characters I create are like alters because it gives you a voice ... a way to impress your opinions onto the world without doing it yourself.